Glenn Burke, a former Dodgers outfielder, was the first major league baseball player to disclose publicly that he was gay.
Burke’s playing career as a major leaguer lasted parts of four seasons, but he left a lasting impression on the sport — Burke is credited with helping create the high five.
After five years on the Dodgers’ minor league team, Burke joined the major league in 1976.
Glenn Burke helped create high five
On Oct. 2, 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker hit his 30th home run in the last game of the regular season. Instead of offering a hug or handshake, Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home from third base.
Not knowing what to do about the upraised hand, Baker slapped it. They have been credited with inventing the high five, according to ESPN.
When Burke stepped into the batter’s box minutes later and hit his own home run — his first in the major leagues, — Baker was waiting at home plate to greet him with a high five of his own.
But that excitement didn’t last long.
Difficult time with Dodgers, Athletics
Burke’s teammates and Dodgers’ management knew Burke was gay, and management wasn’t uncomfortable with it. At one point, according to Burke, the team’s general manager, Al Campanis, offered to pay for his honeymoon if he would only get married (“to a woman,” it went without saying).
In May 1978, just two months into the season, the young ballplayer was traded to the Oakland Athletics for the much older Billy North.
Burke and his teammates were shocked.
“I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects,” Baker recalled to Inside Sports. “He said, They don’t want any gays on the team. I said, The organization knows? He said, Everybody knows.”
Burke injured his neck and was off the field in 1979, but returned the following year to the Athletics. Billy Martin was the team manager.
In the 2010 documentary “Out: The Glenn Burke story,” Athletics teammate Claudell Washington recalled how Martin introduce the new teammates that year: “Then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he’s a faggot.’”
Eventually, Burke’s sense of isolation, compounded by a knee injury, drove Burke to retire from major league baseball in 1980. He was 27 years old.
Two years later, Burke was the first player, retired or on the roster, in baseball history to publicly come out.
Lesbian couple sues Dodgers
In 2000, two lesbian Dodgers’ fans were kicked out of Dodgers Stadium because they kissed each other. The couple filed a lawsuit, and as part of a settlement, the team publicly apologized and gave away 5,000 tickets to gay and lesbian fans.
One thing the team refused to do was host a Gay Pride night, the women said at the time.
It took 13 years before the Dodgers acknowledged LGBTQ+ fans with Pride Night in 2013.
Gay players missing
Billie Jean King, a minority owner of the Dodgers, was asked by Q Voice News in 2019 about the lack of openly gay players in Major League Baseball, including the Dodgers.
“It does bother me,” King said in an interview with Q Voice News. “It would help if a player who was young and popular came out. If one person came forward, it would be great.”
An active Major League Baseball player who is openly gay or bisexual has never happened in the league.
Billy Bean, a former player with the Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, and San Diego Padres, came out in 1999 after retiring and is an executive in MLB’s front office.
David Denson came out while with the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system in 2013, but he never played in the major leagues.
King said one reason gay players stay closeted is because “nobody feels safe to come out. It’s still an old boys club.”
Burke finally recognized
In 1995, just before his death from AIDS complications, Burke published a memoir on his experiences as an openly gay baseball player. During the press tour, he lamented that his coming out never made the waves he had hoped for.
The sports world seemed unwilling to acknowledge what he had tried to make so obvious.
“Everyone just pretended not to hear me. It just wasn’t a story they were ready to hear,” he told People Magazine that year.
In 2014, almost 20 years after his death Burke was recognized by Major League Baseball for his pioneering achievements.